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Taking the long road: what innovation ecosystems need to succeed

Leading innovation hubs the world over, from Silicon Valley to Tel Aviv, have become synonymous with success and entrepreneurship. But this culture didn’t just materialise overnight, as creating the foundation for an effective environment for innovation to thrive is key. With Auckland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem almost a decade in the making and still expanding, the fruits of the city’s labour are starting to blossom. 

And with organisations like Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) steering things into the right direction, the city’s fruits of innovation will continue to flourish. GridAKL, the innovation precinct in Wynyard Quarter, for example has gone from just four businesses in 2015 to almost a hundred today, expanding not just in numbers but infrastructure as well as it gets set to open two new buildings later this year. And with hubs outside Wynyard Quarter like North Shore’s B:Hive and the AR/VR Garage also having recently launched, Auckland’s best and brightest are reaping the benefits of the city’s increasingly favourable conditions for success.

One of these conditions is a vibrant and central location. Close proximity to strong transport links, financial institutions, efficient services and high quality amenities have become crucial to today’s thriving innovation ecosystems, with the CBD’s Wynyard Quarter being a prime example.

“Innovation has become much more urbanised. Things like science parks were more of a gated model, whereas I think with all the changes we've seen in the economy, innovation is much more urban, people-centred and networked than it was in previous eras,” explains Patrick McVeigh, ATEED’s general manager of business, innovation and skills.

“The current wave of innovation is something that's much more democratised in the sense that it's no longer reliant solely on very expensive or advanced research-based tertiary systems. It’s about access to talent, amenities and skills, with people actually wanting to live and work in these locations,” he says.

But a prime location isn’t the only thing enabling the city’s regional ecosystem to thrive, with ATEED placing great emphasis on the importance of building a shared sense of community and culture.

“At the end of the day, this is about  people interacting and coming together to share ideas, creating these moments that lead to new innovations,” says McVeigh. 

“It’s not just about co-locating businesses into one location. That in itself won’t create those conditions for success at a community level. You need to be actively thinking about the curation and management of a community that actually feels invested in the place and see the value of working together as a community and learn from each other.”

“Then there’s this notion of place, which is important because it’s the thing that speaks to your core in terms of the environment that you work in, the mix of different types of activities, the diversity of the tenant mix and the diversity of the talent available,” he says.

In order to help facilitate this, ATEED and its various partners have worked to create activations such as Techweek, Startup Weekend and the Māori Innovation Challenge, DIGMYIDEA, in an effort to bring together likeminded creatives from all over Auckland, and New Zealand, with GridAKL acting as the geographic lynchpin to this effort.

“We’ve been very conscious of the fact the GridAKL is not the only place where innovation occurs and not the only bit of our economy that needs to be thinking about innovation,” says McVeigh.

“When we first started this work, one of the things that became really clear was that there wasn’t really a place in the city that allowed the broader innovation community to rally around together. So what we’ve designed within the Wynyard Quarter Innovation Precinct are spaces that are accessible and connected to the rest of the ecosystem.”

While there’s a degree of magic that happens through a vibrant community and place, ultimately, these startups and SMEs are faced with questions that all businesses eventually contend with, such as how to build capability, how to access new markets and how to attract talent. Capital, connections and resources still remain crucial, and McVeigh says it’s about helping provide both hard services (such as innovation grants) and soft services (such as investment advice) to enable the innovation ecosystem to take the next step.

“Ultimately, the success of many of these interventions comes down to how these businesses grow, and for businesses to grow, they need to both cooperate and compete,” he says.

In order to accelerate this, ATEED has also placed emphasis on collaborating on an international level with the Tripartite Economic Alliance made up of Auckland, Los Angeles and Guangzhou. With the Alliance holding summits every year, it gives the city’s innovative talent a platform to showcase their existing achievements, as well as build further connections and networks to grow upon. ATEED is also hoping to create relationships with New Zealand’s biggest trading partners (Australia, China, America and Japan) to accelerate further growth in those markets.

“These city-to-city relationships allow companies access to market opportunities and areas of cooperation,” says McVeigh. “While Auckland is known as a quality of life city, we’ve been less well known as a centre of innovation and investment. That means we need to have a strong, global brand for that part of the conversation because that’s what will bring investors and talent to the city.”

Ultimately, there’s no hard and fast rulebook for creating a successful ecosystem, with every location having its own unique circumstances that characterise its situation. But despite these differences, commonalities do exist, which is why ATEED and Massey University worked together to articulate these, studying leading cities to observe what makes their innovation precincts work , speaking with local industry leaders and members of the innovation ecosystem, and reviewing international research on best practise innovation precincts.

As a result, here are the ten things deemed necessary for a successful regional innovation ecosystem:

  1. Location
    Vibrant and central locations with strong transport links and high quality amenities are important.
     
  2. Tenant diversity
    Mixed occupancy precincts allow startups, SMEs and corporates to learn and respond to each other.
     
  3. Shared facilities
    Each precinct has a heart where the community can come meet, learn, connect and collaborate.
     
  4. Strong networks
    High quality relationships built on trust, reciprocity, co-operation and collaboration.
     
  5. Culture and values
    A strong culture of openness, diversity and inclusion.
     
  6. Community and social programmes
    These enable networks to be formed and collaborations to emerge.
     
  7. Geographic connections
    Inter-regional and global networks and connections are crucial.
     
  8. Co-ordination and collaboration
    Co-ordination is important to lowering the barriers to knowledge development and commercialisation.
     
  9. Partners
    A shared vision and active participation between the public sector, the private sector and universities.
     
  10. Mentoring, training and support services
    Businesses are mentored and advised as they travel along their growth pathway.